Foreign Policy and the Barack Obama Inauguration: Liberal or Conservative? And Where Was 9/11?

He wants to win. What a surprise.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Barack Obama's inaugural line about a willingness to extend an open hand in exchange for our rivals unclenching their fists might become the enduring line from the speech. But there seems to be some disagreement on the nature of the kind of foreign policy Obama signaled Tuesday.

And: Where was 9/11?

As I mentioned previously, I went to a Brookings Institution event this morning on the Obama inaugural and foreign policy featuring former Bush (43) speechwriter Michael Gerson, former Clinton NSC speechwriter Vinca LaFleur, and Michael Fullilove from the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.

Gerson opened by noting that he had expected masterful rhetoric with ideological shallowness, but that he thought the speech was rhetorically flat but intellectually interesting. (Gerson echoed his Washington Post column today, where he wrote that the speech had "too many 'rising tides' and 'gathering clouds,' " etc., which I found somewhat amusing coming from someone whose speechwriting colleague Matthew Scully used to tease him for being excessively formulaic in his own soaring writings.) He said that while Bush's two inaugurals did not summarize extraordinary historical moments, Obama's did have that opportunity and failed. It was probably better than most inaugural speeches, he said, but it wasn't equal to the moment.

Gerson said that the foreign policy talk was surprisingly Kennedy-like. Again from his column today:

His vivid assurances of toughness on national security were genuinely reassuring. When is the last time we heard a national Democrat admit that "our nation is at war" and promise to "defeat" American enemies?

Ummm, maybe during the presidential campaign? Or the primaries? (Obama's convention speech in Denver, emphasis added: " I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide." The national Democrats who don't want to defeat our terrorist enemies only exist in the fevered mirror universe of GOP talking points.

Gerson imagined that Obama's defeat-our-enemies message must have been rooted in new realizations about threats to the nation coming from the briefings he received as president-elect.

Fullilove, on the other hand, found the foreign policy section of the speech to be wholly consistent with the liberalism he expressed on the campaign trail. Obama, Fullilove argued, implicitly picked up the line of criticism against ex-President George W. Bush (how much fun were those five words to write?) that he had broken with the post-World War II U.S. tradition of multilateralism.

LaFleur added one important point regarding what was not mentioned: There was no explicit mention of 9/11. She suggested, and I think it's an interesting theory, that perhaps the call to return to fundamental values implicitly meant that the idea that 9/11 changed everything is wrong.